The Great Game in Pak tribal areas


By Akbar Ahmed

President Donald Trump recently made headlines when he claimed that the Soviets were justified in invading Afghanistan. It appears that Trump does not want America to be involved in the Great Game, and the implications of this have not been thought out, especially with thousands of American troops still in Afghanistan. The Great Game, the competition for influence between the great powers that in the nineteenth century included the Imperial British, Imperial Russia, and Imperial China, was played in this region which included Central Asia and where it met South Asia. Trump’s statement supporting the Soviet invasion is akin to Queen Victoria in the nineteenth century applauding the Czar’s fresh excursions into Afghanistan.

When I served in Waziristan, the region was contested between the US and the Soviet Union and I was on the front lines of that rivalry and confrontation. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 I was on the Pakistan side of   the Durand line-the unmarked international border in Waziristan. The Great Game is still being played in the region-today the US, China, Russia, India, Pakistan and Iran compete for influence.

Where Central Asia meets South Asia, lie the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, which merged last year with the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. They are some of the most notoriously difficult areas for central government to administer, due to both the inaccessible terrain and the independent-minded Pukhtun people who live there. I served in several posts in the Tribal Areas including Political Agent, South Waziristan, and thus acquired some understanding of  the region and how to work   there, chiefly by understanding the culture of the tribes and applying that knowledge. This is a crucial point to consider in the context of the war on terror in which the Pakistan central government and the tribal periphery have had a difficult relationship.

When I was in Waziristan looking at the Soviets across the border-and they had already been strongly backing the Afghan government before their actual invasion-I was conscious that anything happening in that frontier region could be inflamed and become a much larger geo-political issue. I was also conscious of the Soviet strategy and their   aims in the Great Game derived from Czarist traditions: they would not stop at the Khyber Pass and aim to head south for Karachi and the warm waters of the Gulf. I knew that sooner or later the Soviet invasion would land on the borders of Pakistan, if not inside Pakistan, on its way to this objective. Afghanistan was thus a means to an end. If the Soviets were able to achieve this objective, a major goal of the Great Game would have been achieved by them.

There were two policies that traditionally dominated action in this part of the world during the Great Game. One was “masterly inactivity” which argued that nothing should be done to create or escalate confrontation or tension; the other was the “forward policy” which advocated a strong confident approach. Considering the imminent arrival of the Soviets on my borders and the fact that my administration had virtually no access to them, I believed I had no choice but to opt for the latter.

At the time, Pakistan government authority did not extend to the international border especially in   the Birmal region, and   basically did not exist on the ground. There were no schools, offices or officials in that area. Yet it was critical for Pakistan to be on the international frontier. I realized that in order to extend Pakistan government authority to the border, I would have to work through the tribes, the local people of the area. In this case, it was the Wazir tribe which extended on both sides of the border. I had to win over the Wazir tribe and then take them with me in implementing the forward policy.

I will here discuss a case study showing how administration can function successfully even in a time of tension and political turbulence in a tribal region through my visit to the Birmal area deep in Waziristan on the international border. Though time has moved on since then, in essence tribal societies, their values, and even to an extent their organization remain. It is only through the method of respecting and working with the tribes that government can effectively extend its authority in the Tribal Areas   and administer efficiently.

I discussed my Birmal trip in my book Resistance and Control in Pakistan, first published in 1983, in which I examined how state administration might be best implemented in Muslim tribal society and focused on Waziristan. I returned to these themes in my 2013 book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam.

Before discussing the trip itself, it is necessary to put Waziristan and its people in context. The tribes of Waziristan, like tribes   in other societies, lived by an ancient code of honor here known as Pukhtunwali or the code of the Pukhtun. Other central parts of the code include hospitality and revenge. The people of Waziristan belonged to clans and tribes and were linked through lineage descent from common ancestors. The tribes had what could be described as an egalitarian and democratic traditional form of government and were governed by councils of male elders known as maliks whose status was earned through feats of courage, honor, and bravery. The Pukhtun of the area lived in thinly populated environments, raised livestock such as goats, and did not pay taxes.

Waziristan in history has traditionally been seen as a mysterious land beyond the pale, a hostile and forbidding zone best avoided. It is home to two of the major Pukhtun tribes, the Wazir and their cousins the Mahsud, considered the fiercest of fighters.  Waziristan is characterized by mountains, Preghal is the highest peak at 11,500 feet, a varied and often inhospitable landscape ranging from thick forests to deserts, and an extreme climate, with temperatures reaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and well below freezing in the winter.

During the colonial era the tough tribes of Waziristan remained a constant source of problems and anxiety for the British government in Delhi. So great was the concern that Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India, in an unprecedented move at one point took charge of its administration directly. In 1937 the Mahsud tribe in Waziristan ambushed an entire British brigade in a classic guerrilla manoeuvre, killing nine British officers and forty-five soldiers and wounding a further forty-seven. In the 1930s the British had more troops in Waziristan alone than in the rest of their Indian Empire.

British administration functioned through the Political Agent, the government representative who worked among the tribes to implement state policy. The tribes were able to preserve their way of life, however, as during British rule colonial laws were usually applied only up to 100 yards on either side of main roads.

At independence in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan, the new government inherited the British administrative structure, complete with its Political Agents who lived among the tribes. Yet the state footprint in these areas remained weak. When I took over Waziristan as Political Agent it had been some four decades since independence and the tribes lived much as they did then.

Law and order in Waziristan were traditionally maintained by three overlapping, and in some ways mutually interdependent, though often in opposition, sources of authority. Together they constituted the three pillars of authority in tribal society: the tribal elder, or malik; the religious leader, or mullah; and the Political Agent representing the government. Each had a symbiotic relationship with the others while using them as a foil. This three-way relationship was inevitably changing and dynamic as each pillar strived for dominance. I was conscious of this dynamic when I took over and attempted to maintain a balance, not only between these three sources of authority but also between the tribes and clans as they were constantly competing against one another. The system was shaky and it often seemed like things could spiral out of control, but it held for years, and was particularly effective if the Political Agent understood the local people and their society and culture.

At the time I took over, the Wazir were in a state of agitation due to the actions of a charismatic mullah who challenged the government and was arrested and jailed by the previous administration. Wazir buildings and shops were   leveled  and a large number arrested. Even their main mosque was demolished. On my arrival, I sensed the simmering anger. Some Wazir elders   wanted a chance to prove themselves and their honor according to Pukhtunwali. I was determined to give them that chance.

The Wazir response to my overtures sprang partly from the nature of the Pukhtun model; to establish, or reestablish, themselves as men of “honor.” Partly it was a strategic move to end their isolation without having to compromise their main objectives. Social life was slowly returning to normal in the Wazir areas after the agitation of the mullah and a delicate equilibrium was being established when the Russians entered Afghanistan in December 1979. Refugees flocked to the agency in increasing numbers and anti-Pakistan elements living in the agency, especially in Birmal, were contacted by foreign agents to create trouble, but the Wazir equilibrium held. The Wazirs responded to critical events in the agency in terms described as “loyalist” by the government; henceforth they could not be called “second-class” or “disloyal citizens.”

Shortly after I took charge,   the brother of the imprisoned mullah sent me a letter from his sanctuary in Birmal through a mutual friend. In it he argued the cause of the Wazirs. He requested that I observe and hear for myself and reach my own conclusions: “All the Wazir tribe want from you,” he wrote, “is application of balm [marham pati, literally “balm and bandages”] to their wounds,” and toward the end of the letter he affirmed, “The question of opposing administration or Government does not arise.” In my reply I promised to do my best.

The “balm” was applied through word, gesture, and deed. Wherever I could I made it a point to express confidence in the Wazirs as a tribe. Rejecting recent practice, I accepted invitations to meals organized by Wazirs in their settlements. In the summer of 1979, for example, the tribal elder Jalat Khan arranged a lunch for me in the guest rooms (hujra) of his village to which some 300 elders and officials were invited. I was always careful to maintain neutrality, so if I visited one clan and were hosted by them I would also take care to visit rival clans. On these lunch visits the Wazirs expressed their loyalty and I promised neutrality in agency matters. Informal after-lunch talk, sitting on the floor on rugs, provided valuable information and helped establish rapport.

I  also ensured that Wazirs received material benefits. Their annual timber permits were increased in 1979 as was their food grain quota. The prestigious Waziristan Public School project was to be located in Wana. The Zilli Khel clan responded enthusiastically by accompanying me to a site that I had selected north of the Wana camp and offering fifty acres of land free to the government for the school grounds.

As a gesture of confidence in the Wazirs I took to taking walks at sunset outside the Wana camp alone or with a single companion. Hill and gully around the camp provided cover for anyone contemplating a shot or knife stab. I was aware of violating established agency precedence. Many hints were dropped that I ought not to expose myself and trust Wazirs to this extent because they were “intrinsically unreliable.” The threats of the Wazirs to kidnap officials as hostages for the release of the popular mullah were put to a test. The Political Agent would be an ideal bargaining point. No attempt was made or contemplated, to the best of my knowledge. The balm being applied to the Wazirs was apparently soothing them. The time was ripe for a major psychological breakthrough to the Wazirs.

I chose to perform an act of cultural significance to them. I decided to visit the shrine of the Wazir ancestor Musa Nikka, in Birmal, one of the most inaccessible parts of the Tribal Areas on the Pakistan-Afghan border. The journey proved to be a turning point in my relations with the Wazirs.

In visiting Birmal I was taking a calculated risk. Estimated to be nearly fifty miles to the northwest of Wana, it had no government or modern facilities, no roads, schools, or hospitals. Even one shot fired in the air from a distant peak during the trip would be reported and exaggerated by national and international intelligence agencies. I knew the Soviets and Afghans would be watching all the movements closely.

Nonetheless, I felt the risk was worth taking. The Wazirs would be delighted to have the shrine of their ancestor visited and honored. Apart from the popular cultural purpose of the trip, it would also be an important political move. For the first time a political officer would visit Birmal. Such a visit had wide implications in the Tribal Areas. If the Political Agent could manage his first journey successfully, the area would be declared “open” to other departments. Actual administrative control of the agency would shift right up to the border.

It was arranged that I would visit Birmal as the guest of the Wazirs. The relationship of host and guest was made explicit. Honor and trust were involved. My dishonor would reflect on the Wazirs. Departure time and destination of journeys in the agency were disclosed by the Political Agent at the last moment for reasons of security. Even if the timing was announced to the escort, the destination was kept a secret. Information about the Birmal trip was thus closely guarded, and not even my seniors were informed. The obvious problem of when to inform the many Wazirs who had to accompany us as hosts was solved by the Assistant Political Agent in Wana. We invited the Wazirs for tea on the afternoon before the trip. When the Quarter-Guard of the South Waziristan Scouts-the government paramilitary force in the agency-sounded the bugles at sunset, the camp gates were closed as usual and the Waziris were perforce guests for the night. Although they speculated that some such trip was being planned, the information was contained within the camp. We provided a red herring by dropping hints to the staff about a tour to the Gomal River in the south. So effective was the ploy that the agency surgeon, of the Mahsud tribe, accepted the rumor as gospel truth and positioned himself with his escort by the Jandola gate, east of the Wana camp, at the appointed hour, whereas we, of course, left from the Durand gate, west of the camp.

(The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity)